Plant Science Careers in Space Biology

Plant Science Careers in Space Biology

Recorded Thursday, April 9, 2020

About This Webinar

Plant science careers in the space program. Really?

For many plant biologists, the concept of working for NASA or contributing to space exploration might be rather unexpected. However, career opportunities in space biology are expanding, and these jobs can be exciting venues in which biologists can both do research and expand the appreciation of plants. In this webinar, you will have the chance to hear from scientists who have made their careers in space biology, and you will have the chance to ask them questions about their journeys. 

As a participant In this webinar, you will:

  • Meet six people working in space-related biology, each of whom has taken a different career path; identify the various mechanisms via which a career develops its character
  • Gain an appreciation for space biology as an interesting and impactful career path
  • Develop insights into the kinds of plant biology research that NASA and space exploration programs are interested in
  • Increase your understanding of the roles of plants in extraterrestrial exploration life support

This webinar is freely available thanks to the support of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Join Today.


PANELISTS

Anna-Lisa Paul, PhD 

Headshot of Anna-Lisa Paul

Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul is a Research Professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences and the Director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research (ICBR) at the University of Florida. Paul’s experimental heritage is the study of plant gene expression in response to environmental change, with emphasis on spaceflight and planetary analog habitats. She and her colleague Robert Ferl have launched and analyzed ten spaceflight experiments, which primarily explored the effects of the spaceflight environment on the patterns of gene expression and signal transduction in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Terrestrial research in planetary exploration analogs includes work in research stations in Antarctica (Neumayer III) and in the high Canadian Arctic (the Haughton Mars Project). Her current research is focused on evaluating the epigenetic responses of Arabidopsis to the spaceflight environment and on utilizing suborbital launch vehicles to explore the effect of the transition to space on aspects of gravity signal transduction. Paul has served the space research community as the President of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research, as the Editor in Chief of the journal Gravitational and Space Research, as a member of the ISS Standing Review Board, and on NASA’s GeneLab Science Council. She is currently a member of the Suborbital Applications Research Group. In 2015 Paul was a co-recipient of NASA’s Award for Most Compelling Science on the International Space Station, and in 2019 she received the NASA Medal of Honor for Exceptional Scientific Achievement. She is a Fellow of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research.  

Gioia Massa, PhD 

Headshot of Gioia Massa

Dr. Gioia Massa is a NASA scientist at Kennedy Space Center working on space crop production for the International Space Station and future exploration endeavors. She led the science team for the Veggie hardware validation on the space station, and she heads an interdisciplinary group to study fertilizer and light impacts on the nutrition and flavor of Veggie-grown crops. In addition to Veggie, she helps with science needs for other space station hardware and works with external PIs to get their science to function on station. She is also involved with education and outreach programs related to plants in space. Massa has a BS in Plant Science from Cornell, a PhD in Plant Biology from Penn State, and postdoctoral research from Purdue and the Kennedy Space Center. 

 Raymond Wheeler, PhD

Image of Raymond Wheeler working with Plants in a laboratory setting

Dr. Ray Wheeler is a plant physiologist and senior scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where he leads the ALS research group. This includes controlled environment studies and vertical farming with crops for food and oxygen production, CO2 removal, and wastewater processing. Over the years, Wheeler has studied plant responses to gravity, CO2, light, atmospheric pressure, and hydroponic crop cultivation. Wheeler has been co-investigator for several spaceflight experiments, including the first test to demonstrate potato tuber development in space, and studies using the Veggie plant growth chamber on the International Space Station to grow fresh vegetables for the astronauts. Ray is the author or co-author of more than 260 scientific research papers and has presented 30 international invited talks. He has received NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, the USDA/ARS B.Y. Morrison Distinguished Lecturer Award, the American Society for Gravitation and Space Research Founder’s Award, the AIAA Jeffries Award for Aerospace Medicine and Life Science Research, and served as the Vice-Chair for the Life Sciences Commission of COSPAR, the International Committee on Space Research. 

Howard Levine, PhD

Headshot of Howard Levine

Dr. Howard G. Levine is the Chief Scientist for NASA’s ISS Research Office at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). His primary responsibilities include functioning as NASA Project Scientist for the life science spaceflight experiments managed out of KSC and chairing KSC’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. His MS research centered on various aspects of shellfish aquaculture, and his PhD dissertation was on the use of seaweeds for environmental monitoring. After graduation, he was hired by the Marine Biomass project at SUNY Stony Brook, where he was actively involved in fieldwork that ultimately deployed a kelp farm in Long Island Sound, and managed a greenhouse facility designed for the cultivation of seaweeds. Later, Levine became associated with Abraham D. Krikorian in the Dept. of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at SUNY Stony Brook and the early CHROMEX spaceflight experiments that employed NASA’s Plant Growth Unit during missions STS-29, STS-41, and STS-51. He subsequently became a member of the Life Sciences Contract at KSC where he was a Senior Research Scientist and supervisor for the Project Science Coordinator group. His efforts primarily centered on: (1) the development of procedures for the growth of plants in space, (2) interacting with outside Principal Investigators involved in spaceflight experiments, and (3) mentoring undergraduate students in KSC’s Space and Life Sciences Training Program (SLSTP). In 2004 Levine was hired by NASA. He has participated in over 80 spaceflight experiments either as a PI, a science team member or in a project management capacity. Levine has extensive parabolic flight experience and over 70 space-related publications that include results from both plant (Arabidopsis, Wheat, Flax, Soybean, Corn, Daylily, Haplopappus, Ceratophyllum) and animal (Sea Urchins, Mice) research, as well as hardware and protocol development efforts.

Andrew Schuerger, PhD

Headshot of Andrew Schuerger

Dr. Andrew C. Schuerger received his BS (1979) and MS (1981) degrees from the University of Arizona and his PhD (1991) from the University of Florida studying microbiology and plant pathology. His research interests have closely paralleled NASA’s Advanced Life Support (ALS) and Astrobiology programs, in which he has published numerous papers on plant-pathogen interactions in semi-closed plant growing systems, the survival of terrestrial microorganisms under Martian conditions, and microbial ecology of human missions to Mars.  In 1997 Schuerger joined the Dynamac Corporation (a NASA contractor at the Kennedy Space Center, FL specializing in environmental and life sciences) to pursue research on the remote sensing of plant stress, Mars astrobiology, and ALS plant pathology issues. In 2003, Schuerger joined the Dept. of Plant Pathology at the University of Florida as a Research Assistant Professor to continue his Mars astrobiology and ALS research activities. 

His current research efforts include (1) studying the effects of martian conditions on the survival, growth, and adaptation of terrestrial microorganisms; (2) investigating the UV-photolytic generation and destruction processes of methane on Mars, a potential biosignature molecule in the Martian atmosphere; (3) developing a dust collection system called DART (Dust Atmospheric Recovery Technology) to recover plant and human pathogens in African dust plumes that annually hit FL, and (4) characterizing the development of plant pathogens in bioregenerative ALS systems. 


MODERATOR 

Rob Ferl, PhD

Headshot of Rob Ferl

Dr. Rob Ferl is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Florida. His experimental heritage is the study of gene expression in response to environmental change, and recently that environment has been spaceflight and extraterrestrial habitats. Rob co-chairs the Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space for the National Academies of Science, and he is a past president of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research. Among his honors are the 2016 NASA Medal of Honor for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, the 2016 AIAA Jeffries Aerospace Medicine and Life Sciences Research Award, and recognition as a Fellow of the AAAS. Although a dedicated lab geek, he enjoys and advocates for the experiential aspects of science – he and his lab members have flown with their experiments on many parabolic flights and other research aircraft to study aspects of the microgravity environment and develop flight hardware for understanding the biological effects of spaceflight. 


This webinar is freely available thanks to the support of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Join Today.

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If you would like to sponsor an upcoming webinar please contact community@plantae.org

 


Webinar Transcript

[Katie Rogers] Hi and welcome to the next webinar in our Plantae Webinar series. My name is Katie Rogers and I’m your host for today’s webinar. Before we get started, I’d like to go over a few things just to make sure you get the most out of attending today’s webinar. If you’re experiencing technical issues please let us know about those using the chatbox or by emailing me at krogers@aspb.org. If you have questions for our panelists during today’s webinar please let us know using the GoToWebinar chatbox. We will moderate these questions and read them aloud to our panelists. This webinar series is brought to you today by Plantae, the open online community for plant scientists powered by the American Society of Plant Biologists. I would like to give a special thank you to all of our ASPB members who are attending today. Your ASPB membership dues help support and make these webinars possible. For any of you who have not yet joined ASPB, you can join today to support the series and use the discount code Webinar10 to receive a 10% discount on registration. ASPB members get early access to these seminars. You can learn more about ASPB and the opportunities we provide at ASPB.org. If you are having trouble connecting or need to leave the webinar early, know that a recording of this webinar will be made available along with all of the associated materials within a few days. Be sure to follow us on social media the hashtag for this series is #PlantaeWebinar. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations are canceling, postponing, or moving their meetings online. There have been many new online seminar series and journal clubs initiated by our communities to stay connected with each other. Check out our global calendar to browse all of the opportunities in one place. This calendar is collaborative and we encourage you to submit plant science events of your own. Okay! Thank you for joining us today. I’m now going to turn it over to Dr. Rob Ferl to kick off introductions and moderate today’s questions.

[Rob Ferl]  Good day everybody and thank you for joining, what is going to be, a very interesting discussion about both career paths and unusual career paths for plant biologists in our world, and quite honestly not in our world. How your panelists found their way to becoming plant biologists in this space biology business are as varied as any sort of career paths and trajectories you might find in science. We come to you today as a group of people that, well quite honestly, orbit Kennedy Space Center in one way or another associated with the process of using spaceflight to better understand plants here on earth or using plants to better enable Space Flight by eventually supplying carbohydrates fresh air and water to our colonists on another world or even our astronauts in the International Space Station. So plants offer a really interesting opportunity to sort of engage with space biology for two very important reasons. One is that there’s a lot of things we’d like to know about plants that are gravity-driven and being in space allows us to take gravity out of the equation and the other the sort of more fundamental one for exploration is the fact, quite simply, if we’re going to live on another world for any period we’re going to have plants with us and those plants would be helping with our oxygen water and food. The people on your panel today each represent some aspect and some different aspect of those particular topics having to do with plants in space we are going to go through a series of introductions and talk about the career trajectories that brought us to this point and then open it up for questions to the group as a whole. 

So my name is Rob Ferl, I’m a professor at the University of Florida and this is my introduction slide it is an expression of, in my case, a very traditional trajectory of academic science got my Ph.D. in biology in gene expression and my interest at the time were in using environmental stress as a way to understand how genes worked, to understand what gene expression meant, and how it happened in the world of plants. So I started in a business trying to understand how genes work using plants and using plants that were underwater and stressed there’s a way to get at the questions of how genes worked. During the Space Shuttle era as plants came back from space some of them looked like they were suffering from being underwater expressing some of the same phenotypes as plants under stress so that dragged me, pulled me, and excited me on the idea of using spaceflight to better understand gene expression and using my tools for gene expression to better understand how plants can be adapted to spaceflight. I’m a professor at the University of Florida. I do pretty traditional professorial types of things. Our next panelist is Gioia Massa that who’s a life science project scientist at Kennedy Space Center and the next slide will introduce her and her career trajectory. 

[Gioia Massa] Thanks Rob. I got interested in this field pretty early on when I was in seventh grade I had an agriculture teacher who was invited out to Kennedy Space Center to learn about the work going on to grow plants for food and he brought back that information and it inspired me. So throughout junior high and high school, I built hydroponic systems and got excited about this field. I went to college and I was working there in a plant hormone lab for Peter Davies while there I also got to come back or come to Kennedy Space Center as an intern through the space life sciences training program so that was a real boost up to encourage me to stay in this area. For graduate school, I went to Penn State then I studied with Professor Simon Gilroy who is a good space biologist you know very prominent space biologist as well that we all know and he worked on gravity signaling and I was interested in how plants might use gravity signaling in kind of a real-world application. So how plants responded to obstacles is this sort of central figure of mine is from one of my PhD studies on looking at group responses to gravity and touch – what happens when they hit an obstacle. While at Penn State I’ve got to be involved in a student space flight experiment on the space shuttle looking at seed germination. So that was another sort of plus-up for my career along the way. I realized that I wasn’t as interested in the fundamental signaling as I was interested in kind of the food production side of things. So next I went to Purdue University to have a postdoctoral appointment with Dr. Karen Mitchell as part of the NASA specialized center of research and training and advanced life support. I got to work here on crop plants including strawberries and a lot of work on LED lighting. My journey continued at Kennedy Space Center where I was also a postdoc I came to the NASA postdoctoral fellow to work with Ray Wheeler with me who you will hear from in a moment and studied a horticultural optimization of the veggie hardware board the space station. This was before it flew. I was hired on by NASA and was able to continue the veggie work to do the first flight test of veggie as the science team lead which also led to some interesting experiment experiences like being able to go to the White House and plant some of the veggie plants the White House garden. 

More recently I’ve been a PI on an investigation and you can see in the top right corner where Jessica and Christina are running an experiment that we’re looking at for food crops in response to different wavelengths of LED lights, but the most fun I think I have is down in the bottom right where I work a lot with students and teachers and this is just one of the programs that I’m involved with where we have over 240 middle schools and high schools around the country helping us to select the new crops per space. So that’s probably my favorite thing to do. Thanks. 

[Rob Ferl] Very good. Thank you Gioia. Our next panelist is Howard Levine who’s the chief scientist at the National Utilization in the Life Sciences office at Kennedy Space Center, Howard. 

[Howard Levine] Thanks Rob, next slide please so I guess similar to Gioia around seventh grade I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist. I ended up getting a zoology degree for my bachelor’s and then for my master’s. I worked at the aquaculture engineering lab in Wareham Massachusetts where we had different kinds of pilot plants for growing oysters and while growing oysters in a flow-through Raceway system, I began to study what they were eating and I ended up taking psychology for algae course. I became fascinated with the seaweeds. I ended up using alva as a biomonitor of pollution in coastal waters. I would both collect natural populations and grind them up and look at what pollutants they had accumulated. Then, I developed a method for seeding their spores onto little wooden sticks that I could then deploy at selected locations. After my PhD, I went on to do a postdoc at the Marine Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and this was a marine biomass project where we were growing kelp to eventually digest down to methane or ethanol. So that was a lot of fun. We had a flow-through seawater greenhouse system that we did a lot of phenotypic plasticity work in and then eventually we had a farm that we deployed in Long Island South just to see if we could practically grow kelp large-scale. Then eventually was the biomass project went away when the energy crisis went away and I was hired by Professor Abram Corian at the Department of Biochemistry in Cell Biology at SUNY Stony Brook doing tissue culture plant tissue culture. He had a space flight experiment it was the first life science space flight experiment that was managed out of Kennedy Space Center and we were able to grow plants aseptically tissue culture-derived and sterile seedling clones and bring them back and look for chromosomal aberrations and the root tips. We had three of those spaceflight experiments after which I was hired at Kennedy Space Center as a project science coordinator and during that time I was awarded a grant to do a space flight experiment using porous tubes comparing plants at three different wetness levels on porous tubes as well as substrate nutrient delivery systems. Then subsequently there was an opportunity to do the first plant experiment on the International Space Statio. It’s called the Jose experiment. In which we set out we see the experiment in which corn and soybean seeds were germinated. But in general, I had the opportunity to work with multiple principal investigators on space flight experiments somewhere between 70 and 80 and ranging from sea urchins in the aquatic research facility, I was chairman of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee for 14 years so that we reviewed and oversaw all rodent experiments that went up to the International Space Station one of the more interesting experiments was called seevis – the closed equilibrated biological aquatic systems which had swordtail fish and snails and aquatic angiosperm in the microbial filter. It was a neat cycling system a bio-regenerative life support system. Recently we have the advanced plant habitat that is upon the International Space Station growing plants larger scale. Currently, I’m trying to validate a new way of using a nutrient delivery system in the veggie system that Gioia mentioned. So that’s it for me, thanks Rob. 

[Rob Ferl] Very good. Thank You Howard. Next up, is Ray Wheeler. Ray is a plant physiologist and Ray you’re located at Kennedy Space Center for a long time. The court is yours. 

[Ray Wheeler] Yes my name is Ray Wheeler. I think I did my slide a little bit different than some of the others, but hopefully, it can show you the path in terms of getting toward where I am now. I’ll go way back to my days as a Boy Scout. This was important to me as an individual in terms of really getting an appreciation for biology and life sciences. The opportunity to see living plants and animals in nature had a profound impact on me as I went to college. My BS is actually in astronomy so it didn’t affect me there, but it kind of came through as I had opportunities. I had a chance to work with a person named Frank Salisbury. I don’t know if that means much to some of the folks listening in, but Frank was and his colleague Cleon Ross co-authored plant physiology textbooks that were used around the world for probably 20 years. So that was a great privilege to be able to work with Frank at Utah State and he happened to have a grant from NASA. That got me connected with some of the life science activities that NASA was sponsoring at that time, and in particular, I was looking at plant gravitropism with stems and trying to understand some of the mechanisms there. That was a neat experience. It got me connected with the NASA space biology at that time called the gravitational biology community. 

Then like all of us, I think probably on the panel today, we couldn’t get a real job right away and so I went on to become a postdoc which is a real job, you work hard but not permanent. It was a great step for me. I went on to the University of Wisconsin and so I had a chance to work with a fellow named Ted Tibbets who was a horticulturist horticultural physiologist and so this was a little bit of a change for me in terms of the emphasis of my work and I studied growing plants for life support missions in space. This is something that Rob mentioned upfront in his introduction and, in particular, I focused on growing potatoes in controlled environments. Kind of ironic that that’s what in the Martian movie Matt Damon ended up growing in Mars. I think he picked a pretty good crop, to be honest. It was a great experience for me it taught me a lot about how controlled environments can be used to research with plants. That allowed me to apply for a job at Kennedy Space Center. Kennedy Space Center was just a fantastic experience. That was 1988. When I started there and we had some very unique chambers one was a very large chamber that had vertical shelves of hydroponic systems and light banks. To my knowledge, it’s probably one of the first examples, working examples, of a vertical farm, but it was a closed chamber and it allowed us to do some very unique measurements of canopy or community gas exchange rates, by that I mean tracking canopy photosynthesis respiration transpiration. We did this for a range of crops so that was just a great experience. I’m still at Kennedy Space Center today and I’m a senior scientist in our life sciences group. I’ve sort of broadened out over my career and gotten a little bit more into life support systems that include not just biological approaches, but so-called physical-chemical approaches too. So the next slide was something that I thought was important for me to do where I wanted to point out people that were important in my professional trajectory. I want to emphasize the importance of finding good mentors and having good colleagues that you work with. It helps you through your career it certainly did for me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of all these people so thank you. 

[Rob Ferl] Thank you Ray, we are now going to now pull away from people that are NASA civil servants in the plant biology business and back towards people that are academic scientists associated with Kennedy Space Center in space biology. Our next panelist is Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul, a professor at the University of Florida and director of the biotechnology Center there. 

[Anna-Lisa Paul] So as Rob said I’m an academic scientist. I came up through the ranks in your standard academic model. Where I came from is a little bit different. I did my master’s work in two kinds of disparate things. One was in marine body and so from your data now you might say that “oh yeah working with algae is probably a good pathway”, but statistically – probably not. I worked with algae in marine algae and physiological ecology. So from that perspective, I was interested early on in how the environment impacts the structure and function of plant parts and plant biology. I also worked in the biochemical realm looking at different types of secondary compounds in citrus in other plants. I’m a hardcore botanist so I was educated in botany, plant physiology, and plant molecular biology. For my doctoral work, I worked mostly in gene regulation from the perspective of chromatin structure and DNA architecture so quite different from the physiological ecology realm, but when you put everything together it predisposes one quite nicely to go into a career in space biology. This slide shows a synopsis of all the work I’ve had the honor to be a part of in the last 20 plus years. So going from a background of wanting to understand how plants respond to environmental stress, space biology – the spaceflight environment – is the coolest most novel type outside the realm of evolutionary experience that you can imagine. 

The work that I’ve done in the last 20 odd years has been doing just that. Is finding out from the molecular level how plants respond, what genes are induced, what genes are repressed, what kind of biochemical changes happen, what kind of cell-specific information we get by using fluorescent reporter genes. I’ve used several different tools, several different approaches – including, most recently, epigenetic approaches looking at how the architecture of the genome changes in response to spaceflight. We’ve also done a lot of work in what we call analog environments and there are space flight analogs for things like suborbital research or parabolic research where you’re doing experiments in short term transitions into microgravity, but also taking all of that curiosity and knowledge into what do we need to know before we go to another planetary surface. Practicing some of those things in greenhouses, both in the high Canadian Arctic, and also down in Antarctica where you can look at what we’re learning about how plants respond to strange and novel environments and reveal some new things by going to these remote environments we wouldn’t necessarily uncover by working in our backyard. That’s pretty much me in a nutshell. 

[Rob Ferl] Thank You Anna-Lisa and our last panelist is Andrew Schuerger. Andy is also a professor at the University of Florida but he has an interesting distinction from the rest of us in that his laboratory and office and research environment are located at Kennedy Space Center. So he’s a hybrid academic person being right there in the middle of the mix of Kennedy Space Center physically. So Andy. 

[Andy Schuerger] Okay, thanks. Hello everyone thanks for chiming in. I became interested in plant biology in high school in my advanced biology class and I had an opportunity to work as an honors student in a plant pathology research lab in a nearby botanical garden. That started my interest in plant pathology. I eventually went on to college and got a series of degrees in Plant Pathology. The latest was a PhD in Plant Pathology at the University of Florida, but this first slide shows my working career start which was at the Epcot Centers Agricultural Pavilion called The Land. There are two images there. One in the upper left shows a rather large research plot that we did in the greenhouses looking at plant disease development on various plants. In this case, it was wheat and beans and what I did at Epcot in The Land Pavilion was work on how to diagnose diseases. Then when we had a persistent disease that was affecting a plant in a major way I would then be responsible for working with the entire staff to come up with a control program. So the first part of my career out of college was about 16-17 years of just traditional plant pathology which I enjoyed. Then in 1996, there was a news conference at the Johnson Space Center. About five scientists reporting in this news conference believed they had found evidence of extinct fossilized microbial life in a Martian meteorite. The Martian meteorite was recovered in Antarctica and then the description of these structures was done at the Johnson Space Center. I thought that was so incredible that right there at that news conference in the summer of 1996, I decided I wanted to go into astrobiology. I started the transition into astrobiology, specifically focused on Mars because that was the location of a planetary body in our solar system that probably has the best chances of finding an extant viable microbial community present in the lithosphere or the upper crust of the planet. 

So humans would like to explore Mars. There’s a lot of robotic missions and war murder missions going to Mars. So of all the planetary bodies in the solar system that’s the one, I became the most interested in. So I’ve been working for about 20 years on the survival growth and adaptation of terrestrial microorganisms to Martian conditions but the real long-term goal has always been, even from 1996, to get prepared for helping to support human colonies on Mars by developing regenerative life support systems. As a plant pathologist, my interest in those is to help protect the plants from the development of diseases that might occur in transit to Mars or when a colony is set up on Mars trying to protect those of the crop cultivars that are required and necessary for food production from potential microbial pathogens. 

The last thing I wanted to mention is that if you’re all thinking of graduate school, you want to try to pick some of the coolest and most interesting fieldwork that you can get your hands on. This is an experiment I did. The red pod hanging off of this jet flying over the Kennedy say Space Center has got the abbreviation D A R T for DART and it stands for Dust Atmospheric Recovery Technology and in the jet, in the back seat, is me at about 15,000 feet collecting aerosol dust looking for plant pathogens that might be transported in atmospheric dust from Africa. So there’s a real diverse eclectic kind of background, but it all is focused on microbial survival and adaptation to very low pressured environments and that goes that continuum was from the from high-altitude sites on earth through the atmosphere of Earth and then on to other planetary bodies. So with that all I’ll sum up and say I look forward to your questions. 

[Rob Ferl] Well thank you Andy and thank you all for your description of your journeys. One of the key things we wanted to talk about today and to let people know about is that there is there’s no single phenotype for a plant space biologist. We all look different, we all come from different backgrounds, and we all find ourselves here because we are interested in space flight, in space biology, but also because our scientific backgrounds simply brought us towards these kinds of questions. 

I’m gonna split our online questions up into a couple of different topics and sort of balance between the two topics. One is how did we get there, what a career trajectory might look like for us, as well as some of the basic questions people are asking about living and working in space and the role of plants in those particular things. I’m going to start with a very quick question and that is – “are their future careers in plant space biology?” I think I’ll direct that question to Gioia and Howard and Ray Wheeler who are at Kennedy Space Center and see the trajectory of plants in space at the current time.

[Gioia Massa] Okay, I’ll just start and left our Howard and Ray answer as well. I think there are future careers. You know there are so many questions that we have yet to answer. In terms of fundamental plant responses to the space environment, but also the applied ways to grow food using plants using other organisms. So I think a lot of these questions are critical to answer to enable human exploration and there will be opportunities both in academia and industry and in government.

[Howard Levine] Thanks Gioia, I’ll just add to that that in the past five years or so NASA has started to get serious about plant production in space and I think part of the reason is that we’re going back to the moon and then on to Mars. So currently what we do is bring all of our food with us, kind of like going on a picnic, but as you have longer and longer duration missions that are less viable. For instance, whenever you see a moon habitat you usually see a greenhouse attached to it. I think that we’re in a time when there’s increasing emphasis on crop production in space. Both on planetary surfaces and actually in microgravity. As you would need for the transit from Earth to Mars. 

[Rob Ferl] Ray would you like to add anything to that? 

[Ray Wheeler] I agree with Gioia and Howard’s comments I think there are opportunities for agencies like NASA. The opportunities kind of wax and wane a bit, but I’ll give you an example in the 1990s. Probably when we had our peak staffing for research at Kennedy Space Center for controlled and bioregenerative life-support systems we had five or six plant biologists working in our team: three or four microbiologists, four or five agricultural engineers, some chemists. It was a diverse group but there were a lot of opportunities. So I think there will be as Howard and Gioia mentioned. 

[Rob Ferl] Thank you. Very good. I’m gonna switch now from the future to a little bit more on the past and ask both Anna-Lisa and Howard to talk about the diversity of their science trajectory coming from, if you will, coastal ecology into plants based biology. Can you guys reflect a little bit on intentional changes in your career trajectory as opposed to just what happened as you walked down the path? 

[Anna-Lisa Paul] Alright. I’ll jump in first. For me, I grew up in Florida so I grew up being a science geek from a very early age and also being very attuned to the space program. So I always had it in the back of my brain that I wanted to be a scientist ever since about the third grade, but never thought that I would be a space scientist per se. I was very interested, as I mentioned, in the environmental effects that the conditions had on plants and how the same species of plants, have different responses depending on the environment they live in. So for me, I always wanted to know how plants work. That’s why I started as a botanist, then went to be a plant physiologist, then a biochemist, then a molecular geneticist. Going ever deeper into the “why” and “how” question. So for me, the trajectory was the door was open to explore a truly novel environment. That helped me answer my desire of how and why plants work. Also because I’ve always been a science geek and a science fiction fan, I wanted to be a part of what took plants off the planet, allowed us to understand how we could grow them in space, and on a colony on Mars. That was the motivation and sort of the trajectory. Not completely deliberate, but certainly aligned. 

[Rob Ferl] Howard any anything to add to the coastal discussion. 

[Howard Levine] Yeah. Usually when people ask me “What should I do if I want to become a space biologist?”, I tell them to get the best science background they can. You don’t start studying space biology you study botany or zoology or whatever research area are interested in. Although I was also a science fiction geek and I was always really was interested in the space program I never really envisioned that I would end up participating in it. It was fortuitous because I was working on a biomass project and when the money went away. I transferred to someone who, like Ray, happened to have a NASA grant. That was how I entered into the space biz as I’ll say. I think the key point here is to just get the best basic background in the sciences that you can. Then when you reach a certain point, you can begin to look for space or get options if you’re so inclined. 

[Rob Ferl] Alright, I’m going to switch to a very practical question that has appeared online and that is – Are there jobs in space biology open right now and where does somebody go to look for those jobs? Any of you NASA people got an answer for that? 

[Howard Levine] yeah yeah I mean I can say that for the NASA position there’s a website – USAJOBS we’re all NASA positions are advertised there may be additional ones at the universities for professors with research grants looking for grad students or postdocs so those are the different categories and of course there are more and more companies that are getting involved in space research so there’s a series of those that can also offer job opportunities. 

[Rob Ferl] The other thing I mentioned as part of the job and career track discussion is the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research ASGSR which has a very active student chapter and a very active community of people that look for students and postdocs all the time. So that society is why you might want to get interested get into if you are interested in this kind of career path. 

[Howard Levine] Rob and that website is www.asg.org 

[Rob Ferl] Yep very good. I’m going to shift the question over to Andy Schuerger and ask him to reflect just a little bit more on basically two notions: how your experience working for The Land at Disney, how that didn’t get in the way of your trajectory to the space business, but it is unique amongst the group here. Can you reflect on going over to industry for a while? 

[Andy Schuerger] Well yeah that’s a really interesting question I had a phenomenal opportunity working at The Land Pavillion at Epcot Center because in addition to being the senior plant pathologist on the staff. I was also tasked with interacting with NASA scientists out at the Kennedy Space Center and I was given the freedom to attend many workshops early in my career. I’ve seen some of the questions as we’re going through here that talk about “how do I get started in this subtopic of this field?”. The best way in my view is trying to go to either a national or international conference that includes some aspect of space biology. Listen to the talks. For the talks that get you fired up and excited try to go up and speak with the speaker either right after their talk or try to look for them during the poster session. It’s the networking that gets you those opportunities that you don’t know are out there. In my situation, I met Ray Wheeler and Howard and everybody else here years and years ago. Ray had started working – I’m sorry started working at NASA just a few years after I worked at Epcot and we just naturally started talking and working together and communicating. So it’s that networking that helps you out. So if you’re interested, try to attend a topical workshop symposium or conference it’s the best way to get started. 

[Rob Ferl] Okay I’m going to shift the topic just a little bit to a question for Anna-Lisa and Ray having to do with the comments online that a lot of the work happening these days it’s faced with model systems but what sort of research pathways for actual crop plants exists or has existed and I think what I’ll do is I’ll ask Ray to talk a little bit about the history of actual crops in space and space-related science and then ask Anna to reflect on model organisms and their interactions with those. So Ray. 

[Ray Wheeler] Well NASA and other space agencies have sponsored a lot of work with crops. Most of that has been what is referred to as “ground-based research” because the thinking was that the use of crops for space missions would begin to trade more favorably as we got to surface destinations like Mars, but there’s a continuum and so crops have a role even in early missions. Gioia is involved with a lot of this research right now of providing supplemental foods. There tends to be a focus right now on leafy greens because they fit well and spaceflight plant chambers they’re relatively easy to grow. There are challenges in space. Things like lettuce and some mustard greens and mizuna have been tried and we’re hoping to get to things like small fruiting crops tomatoes and peppers. So these aren’t model crops per se, but they’re kind of jumping ahead to the application side of using plants in a space setting and they can yield good research. I’ll defer to Anna-Lisa on model organisms. She has and Rob they have a lot of experience there. 

[Anna-Lisa Paul] I’ve also sort of been looking through some of the questions, there’s a little bit a lot of questions on genomics on DNA structures on gene expression and stuff and the answer to that is yeah the lot of that work has been done with model organisms and the model organisms that are most commonly used are ones that have their roots in inedible things like in the mustard family, mizuna, Arabidopsis. All those things have edible cousins and so do the things that we learn. Model organisms are small and easy to work with, They have short life cycles that allow us to extrapolate into the crops that we might want to take with us and would be better suited for spaceflight and planetary environments. In other words, the things that we learn about how model organisms adapt to spaceflight environments allow us to either breed, engineer, or select varieties of plants that are edible and more suitable for surviving in these kinds of environments. It’s a huge part of spaceflight research. 

[Rob Ferl] So I’m going to kick it one time over to Gioia. You look over and have seen the long-term development of the veggie growth unit for the International Space Station. You’ve seen it grow and take care of many kinds of species. Can you sort of on your fingers run down the number of different plants that have grown in space?

[Gioia Massa] Sure. You know we’ve been focusing from a food side primarily on leafy green crops so far in veggie and we’ve grown about eight or nine different varieties of leafy greens lettuces, mizuna, mustard, Chinese cabbage, red and Russian kale, and wasabi mustard is a really fun spicy one. We also grew zinnias which are a flower and crop in preparation for testing small fruiting crops like tomato and pepper. Then of course we’ve done a lot of model organisms. So Arabidopsis, as you and Anna-Lisa are very well aware, has been growing quite extensively in veggie along with Brachypodium and the Europeans have had an educational payload where they tested lentil mustard and radish seed germination with veggie which was pretty fun. We’ve also had algae growth in veggie in bags specifically designed for that. It’s designed to be a versatile platform. We hope to start growing dwarf Tomatoes in their next year and peppers at some point as well. 

[Rob Ferl] Very good. Andy I’m going to get a question over to you and it’s a general one that has to do with the focus on soil microbial communities, microbial life on other planets. This is from a Canadian listener, but the question I think is universal. Talk to us a little bit about the relationship between the microbial survival that you’ve looked at in your chambers and indeed in places like Canadian Arctic and the relationship between that and plant health. 

[Andy Schuerger] Right, so of all the work that’s been published on how microbes might survive under Martian conditions the most dominant biocidal factor on Mars is the solar UV irradiation there’s no ozone in the Martian atmosphere, or let me rephrase that, there’s only a trace of ozone in the Martian atmosphere and it occurs only up very periodically. So we don’t get an ozone layer that’s attenuating the strong UVC and lower UVB photons and so the environmental condition on the surface is much more biocidal on Mars than it is on earth even though Mars is twice the distance, but if a microbe is transported to Mars inside a human habitat or microbial community is transported to Mars inside a human habitat those individual microbes and the communities are going to be protected from that solar UV irradiation and there they will likely perform in much the same way as they would here on earth in any other form of hydroponic or soil-based agriculture system. I mean Mars has a lower gravity it’s only 0.38 g compared to our 1 g on Earth so there’s going to be an effect there, but other than that inside a human habitat that will have to have an atmosphere that can support humans and pressure and gas composition microbial communities will likely perform very similar to what we see on earth. The big difference is ionizing radiation that is not filtered out by the thinner Martian atmosphere and some of those ionizing radiation forms can get through the outer layers of space habitats and so that might be a factor that would alter these plant-microbe interactions a little bit more. 

[Rob Ferl] Very good thank you. I’m reflecting on another question that’s come in here recently that perhaps we can not clear up, but continue to comment on a little bit. Ray mentioned that the peak of plant physiology jobs at Kennedy Space Center was in the 80s or 90s and Howard says that new jobs are opening up. So can you NASA folks sort of help the community out there understand where you know the sort in the grand scheme of when plant people will be in the exploration business not just working at KSC but around the world. That’s for Gioia, Ray or Howard. 

[Howard Levine] I’ll start. Ray and I kind of laughed because we’ve been in this business for about 30 years and always pushing what we refer to as “bio regenerative life support systems” where you grow plants to scrub co2 and produce oxygen and clean water and oh by the way they’re also producing food. NASA has always said “Yeah, you know that’s great. We will get around to that maybe in about five years”, but it’s always been five years away. The change that happened about five years ago, and a large part of this is due to Gioia’s effort at getting funding from the human research program, is that they’ve decided that now is the time. In the space life and physical sciences division those of us working for NASA KSC are within, they are putting great emphasis on crop production. So there in general they are ramping up on the part of NASA in the interest in growing crop plants for food in space right now. 

[Ray Wheeler] If I can add to that, the one thing I believe is going to happen over the next 10 years or so is that with the industrial partners in the world companies like SpaceX, Blue Origins many others who have come out publicly and are spending a lot of time and money developing their private industrial capabilities of ascending humans to the moon, which is the goal of Blue Origins. If possible, then sending humans to Mars, which is the stated goal of SpaceX, the physics doesn’t change regardless of who is going to these planetary bodies. It’s likely to be a consortium but whomever the goal the collection of organizations they’re going to need life support systems to support and allow humans to flourish in those environments and one of the real key things is plant production in these what are called bio regenerative life support systems because if you can use plants to recycle oxygen and water and produce food crops there’s a real cost-benefit of not having to ship those resources to the planetary bodies so don’t just look to NASA or academia for careers in plant biology. Look to these other aerospace companies that are very aggressively pursuing very similar goals. 

[Rob Ferl] Here is a question about career trajectories for our international audience. I’m going to ask Ray to comment upon opportunities basically around the world – non-US opportunities in space biology. You’re familiar a lot with the European and Russian connections and if you could make some comment there on the International state of affairs then hand off to Gioia or Howard for additional worldwide opportunities that’d be great. 

[Ray Wheeler] Sure yeah. The notion of using bioregenerative approaches for life support for space exploration. It’s a global concept and the first researchers that were =pushing this hard were Russians in the 1960s. There was activity in the US as well, mostly focused on algae at that time single-celled algae. Through the years European groups got interested. The European Space Agency and most recently the German Space Agency is engaging in a lot of ways. The Japanese space agency has had research space research funding for probably 30 years and they built a large demonstration facility in northern Japan and to test out the concepts of bio regenerative life support with humans. Probably the most recent newcomer to this is the Chinese National Space Agency. They’re sponsoring a lot of bio regenerative life support work that involves controlled environment agriculture systems with humans and waste processing systems. There is certainly global interest. There is a Canadian Space Agency as well. Many of us on this panel have interacted with colleagues at the University of Guelph in Ontario. They’ve been doing very innovative trailblazing work in terms of understanding plants and how they could be used for space exploration. Gioia?

[Gioia Massa] To follow up, I guess I know some of the students are asking “Are there opportunities for international students at Kenedy Space Center?” The only opportunity I know of at Kennedy Space Center is through the NASA postdoctoral program which does allow international postdocs to work with NASA, but international students can certainly work at university labs where investigators have space biology research. 

[Rob Ferl] Very good Katie. I can turn the screen back over to you for winding up the hour if you like. 

[Katie Rogers] Certainly, thank you all for such a great conversation this is cool stuff that I wasn’t aware of. On Plantae, we have a network to continue to have these conversations. Of you join the Space Biology Network on Plantae there are different collections related to this topic and also a place for you to ask more questions and answer them with the community. So I encourage you all to join that network and start-up some discussions. We weren’t able to get to all the questions today so we will be posting the follow-up questions on this site. So be on the lookout for that. 

[Rob Ferl] And Katie if I could add one sort of last bit before you finish up with us for today. I want to express my sort of sincerest wish that anybody who has tuned in today and is interested in space biology to maintain that interest finds a way to stay involved first off and then think about the many opportunities people have talked about today the many opportunities that appeared in people’s career paths that got them towards this business and that are in it today. Keep that in the back of your mind as you move to your various companies, classes, postdocs, degrees, or any place you go. There are ways to keep this interest burning. I can tell you from the large science perspective that interest in the space program and interest in space-related science is growing. We now have at the International Space Station something called the International Space Station National Laboratory which gives another non-NASA way to get experiments in this space, especially for the private industry. You may find yourself in any one of several different venues that can point towards space as a place to experiment. Katie –

[Katie Rogers] Very well said. Earlier today it was mentioned that networking is a big component of advancing your career. You can do this through our online community and also through our Plantae Mentoring Center we’ve recently started. Those are also great ways to build connections especially in the absence of being able to travel to meetings right now. So definitely stay in touch and reach out to people in this way. You can volunteer as a mentor as a mentee by following this link. 

And lastly don’t forget to join ASPB. ASPB membership dues are what make these webinars possible and open to everyone. Be sure to join. Thank you all for attending and thank you especially to our panelists for having such a great discussion. We’ll be following up with additional questions here soon and posting the recording soon. 

[All] Thank you, bye everyone. 


Q: To Andrew Schuerger: Is there any research on the evolution of microbes under a non-gravity environment? Do you see any changes in mutation rates? 

A: There are several studies done on microbial evolution in the microgravity environment. Use Google Scholar for a quick search of the published papers. Keywords: (1) microbial evolution in space, (2) microbial adaptation to space, etc. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: I’m interested in the space life sciences training that Gioia mentioned. Is that training still available? How to apply for that? Thanks!

A: The Space Life Sciences training program is no longer at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), but this program is going on at Ames Research Center. At KSC our plant research group has internship opportunities for U.S. undergraduate and graduate students every semester. Go to intern.nasa.gov to find out about these opportunities. -Gioia Massa 

Q: To Andrew Schuerger: Is there any research that you did or planning to do on soil microbes and their adaptation to martian soils? Could these microbes be a way to enrich space soils in nutrients and make the space soil more available for plant growth?

A: Yes, do a Google Scholar search with my name….that should get you started. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Are there any opportunities for foreign undergraduates in NASA? I am a current Agricultural Biotechnology from PH, and I am very interested in further studying space plant biology however, opportunities are very scarce in our country. 

A: Unfortunately, NASA internships are only open to US citizens. Laboratories that have NASA-funded grants at universities and in industry may have opportunities open to foreign nationals. NASA postdoctoral fellowships are open to foreign nationals as well. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Do you think that heavy metals could be a problem in space soils? Are you only working with the ground from the Earth or have you tried with soil from other asteroids/planets? 

A: The biggest problem on Mars if the in situ regolith were to be used is the presence of high salts (#1 problem), oxidants (#2 problem), and heavy metals (present but scattered. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Is the selection of plants to be studied in space environment based on their resistance to abiotic stresses, knowledge based on previous genetic studies (wild relatives, inbred lines)? In addition, how gravity signaling can be studied on Earth? I wonder how you can simulate the microgravity conditions on Earth? Has any research been done on effect of magnetic field on plant development? What is the experience on that side?

A: Opportunistic pathogens are likely the primary group of future disease-causing agents in space. And thus, we need to investigate how plant resistance to these kinds of microbes in space is a critical area of future research. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: To Andrew Schuerger: The 31 bacterial species which are able to grow in 7 mbar, 0 degree etc. so are they have any similarities with any plant pathogens at earth?

A: Excellent question. Most aggressive pathogens that would be found in a typical Ag system will likely not occur in space BLSS modules. They can be eliminated by a good IPM program. But the general airborne microbes can be “opportunistic pathogens in space-based BLSS units. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: To Andrew Schuerger: cont. to earlier question (31 species), Do they create any pathogenic activity or symbiotic activity or not do anything in space situation? 

A: This has not been studied yet. Low-pressure microbiology is in its infancy. I think maybe 6 papers have been published to date. But this is an important question related to exploring Mars. -Andrew Schuerger

Q; Very interesting about microbes. Do we know if Rhizobia survive in space? Do legumes nodulate in space? I am a graduate student studying symbiotic nitrogen fixation

A: There have been a few experiments in space on the growth of Rhizobia spp. and how they colonize plant roots. But there is A LOT more to study. This is an important field. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: What are some of the plant species with the most potential to be grown sustainably in space? What are the main concerns about the plants’ health in space?

A: Look primarily at food crops. Those are the focus for Bioregenerative Life Support Systems. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Are all plants that are used in experiments in space in sterile media/environments, or are there microbial communities that are safe and/or indispensable for growth in closed environments?

A: In all Bioregenerative Life Support System….they are cleaned thoroughly before launch, but then become colonized what the bacteria, fungi, algae, etc. that are present in the human habitats. The BLSS systems then become supportive of complex microbial communities very quickly. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Do we have a sense of how exposure to radiation during transit and on a different planet surface will affect plant seed stocks and stability of traits.

A: Not yet…research is required in this area. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Question for everyone: I am a graduate student in Canada, focusing on soil microbial communities. My interest is in the potential for microbial life on other planetary bodies. Is there a career potential for microbial space research and as a Canadian, is there a potential to work with NASA?

A: To date, there are no “smoking gun” evidence that life exists on other planets. But most astrobiologists think it is possible to discover a new lineage of life on Mars, Europa, or Enceladus. And that is my opinion too. But to discover these other forms of experience, we need graduate students, post-docs, professors, and industrial partners to study how to detect life. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: My question is about the long term flight in space. Are we going to frozen stock while long term flight and revive them when we reach to the destination such as another solar system or planet.

A: For our life-times (till 2100), there will only be travel to the Moon, Mars, and maybe the asteroid belt. Thus, flights to another start system is a LONG way off. But to your question, seed and tissue culture plants are likely to be stored not in a frozen state, but in a cold temperature refrigerator for the trip to the destination. Freezing can damage seeds. Storage at 4 C is better.-Andrew Schuerger

Q: To Andrew Schuerger: Would we need to bring earth’s soil in order to grow plants in Mars, or could we use Martian soil? 

A: No, the Martian regolith is rich in all nutrients except nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients will have to be brought from Earth. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Is there ongoing research into medicinal plants (such as Catharanthus roseus) in space?

A: There is a small amount of research in this area that I am aware of at Langston University. This hasn’t been a major focus, but it is an area with a lot of potentials.,One problem to send humans to Mars is the degradation of stored vitamins over time. Thus, phyto-medicine plants in space is a really good way to “grow” your vitamins during the mission. – Gioia Massa, Andrew Schuerger

Q: Probably more for the NASA folks: Can you speak about the funding projections for the field, and if any other agencies are pushing the space biology effort?

A: We anticipate that the funding for this area will remain steady or increase slightly in the future. There probably won’t be any big changes, good or bad., Believe it not, algae could be a real problem in space because their spores are floating around everywhere. And the biggest problem with algae is that wherever there is water and nutrients (i.e., hydroponic systems), they will increase. Controlling algae blooms in space BLSS modules is a good research topic. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Many of the space biology projects mentioned were on the experimental scale. As we transition toward growing plants on the lunar/Martian surface, is there a focus on the scale-up of these experiments to provide more of the astronauts’ nutritional requirements during missions?

A: The scale-up problem is real, but down the road a bit. The first plant production systems for the next 10 years or so will be smaller-scale “garden lettuce and dwarf tomato” scale projects. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Question on your answer on microbes dying on martian UV, we can evolve rhizobacteria for higher UV dose. I agree it will be more ethical to apply that on martian soil. Do you think it is possible?

A; Remember, all Rhizobia released on Mars will not be into the open terrain. The use of releasing Rhizobia is to enhance the N-cycling within the human habitat. Thus, those soil-based systems will be protected from solar UV. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: which benefits of plants are of the highest priority, or likelihood of incorporation, in space mission architecture in the near to mid term — food, clean water, gas exchange, behavioral health support?

A: Food is the highest priority right now as this is the only thing we cannot do with alternate means. This is considered a high risk for Mars as the packaged diet degrades over time and vitamins break down. So we are looking at plants as a way to provide these critical nutrients. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Are there opportunities to get internships for graduate students related to Space Biology research? 

A: Yes, NASA has NSTGRO fellowships, and NASA Fellowships that are available for graduate students, and this type of research can be conducted with those. -Gioia Massa 

Q: How plants can be breed in the space that developed into a robust technology for feeding global hunger?

A: Plants that might do well in space under the stresses associated with spaceflight may also do well in certain environments on Earth. Water stress is a big concern in microgravity as water behaves strangely and water and air do not mix well, so getting the correct ratio of water and oxygen in the root zone is hard, and this might be something that can be targetted. These types of plants may do well in flood or drought situations on Earth. Plants optimized for high yields in compact controlled environments may also be suitable for growing in Controlled environments on Earth. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Question for everyone: In the movie ‘The Martian’, Matt Damon has degrees in both Botany and Mechanical Engineering. Do you think it’s necessary to be multifaceted in this sense to be successful in plant space research, to be an astronaut, or is it not appropriate?

A: Yes! If you would like to be an astronaut traveling to Mars, it is essential to have multiple tasks.-Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Do transgenic plants have a place in plant space research? Since not every country agrees on consuming them, I would assume this would cause hesitation?

A: Yes, transgenic plants have been used in spaceflight research quite a bit! – Anna-Lisa Paul

Q: Many of you mentioned your works relating to plant gene expression. I was wondering, do you see the capabilities of current plant gene expression studies expanding in such a way that they become more commonplace? 

A: Lots of work on this front, and much – if not all – translatable to crop research and insight. Look on like for pawers by Rob Ferl and me, but may others as well. – Anna-Lisa Paul

Q: Dear Dr. Schuerger, I was fascinated with your study about the effects of martian condition on microorganisms. I would like to know what would be the difference you could expect between simulated and real mars conditions? 

A: Simple Question…with complex answers. Go to Google Scholar and enter my name “Andrew C. Schuerger” and you will get dozens of papers that you can download. In essence, UV irradiation is very strong on Mars, and all microbes will be killed off if exposed to solar UV on Mars. But then if the microbes are shielded from solar UV, they can survive. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: What could be the difficulties in growing plants on the moon?

A: Factors such as partial gravity, dust, micrometeorite impacts, and deep space radiation may provide challenges for both humans and plants on the moon. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Can students join KSC as an intern for 6 months?

: Internship opportunities are generally 14-16 weeks in the spring and fall semesters and 10 weeks in the summer semester. There are occasionally opportunities to have repeating internships. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Does the development of spaceflight hardware impose severe limitations on the conduct of space plant biology experiments? 

A: There are going to be mass, volume, power, and crew time limitations for any experiments conducted in space, as all of those are limited resources. Cold stowage (fridges and freezers) are also very limited. Plant experiments are no exception, and our hardware can only grow certain types of plants that are certain sizes, though we work to make most experiments possible. -Gioia Massa 

Q: Is there a particular set of skills that are increasing in value to NASA (e.g. Plant breeding, quantitative genomics, bioinformatics, plant pathology, statistical analysis)?

A: I would list the plant biology skills as: (1) horticulture, plant physiology, botany; (2) plant molecular biology; (3) plant ag engineering; (4) plant pathology; etc. from there. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Is there more potential for hydroponics or amended Mars regolith to be the medium of choice for a Mars colony?

A: This is one of the most important questions out there. Hydroponics can give much higher yields than soil-based crop production, but you have to have relatively pure salts and buffers to get hydroponics to work. The use of Mars regolith as a growing medium is filled with uncertainties right now, but soils have the key advantage as you do need to bring those nutrients with you (except N and P). -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Do plants on the ISS ever end up with mite problems?

A: This has not yet occurred. -Andrew Schuerger

Q: Is the air available for plants in space experiments sterile?

A: No. All human habitats have naturally occurring microbial communities present that helps to stabilize the ecosystem. That said, scientist do try to keep the plants and hydroponic systems free of microbes that will ruin their experiments. Remember, microbes are mostly our friends in ecosystems. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: We all know that funding for space programs is tremendous; however, is funding for ‘plant biology in space’ better than plain old plant biology?

A: The funding for plant biology is getting better year-by-year. The next 5-10 years should be good. -Andrew Schuerger 

Q: Do you look at the Epigenetic factors involved in growth and development in space? Any specific crops?

A: Short answer is yes. Rob GFerl and I had an epigenomic experiment on the ISS a couple of years ago (see this paper: Zhou M, Sng NJ, LeFrois CE, Paul A-L, Ferl RJ. (2019). Epigenomics in an extraterrestrial environment: organ-specific alteration of DNA methylation and gene expression elicited by spaceflight in Arabidopsis thaliana. BMC genomics, 20: 205) the bottom line is that we found differential patterns of DNA methylation in spaceflight, which could also be correlated with differential gene expression. – Anna-Lisa Paul

Q: I have a simple question regarding Plant Growth- How does plant response insect attack in the space environment, I am trying to understand the insect -plant relationship 

A: To my knowledge, there have been no insect/plant interaction studies conducted on the space station. But some insects are likely to get into the systems by hitching hiking on humans. This is a critical area of research where data is required. Andrew Schuerger 

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